Before she started her writing career, Amy Tan sat down and wrote a story about a little girl who plays chess. Amy Tan didn’t play chess herself, and so clearly this wasn’t a story about her, right? But as she wrote, what unfolded was an intricate and intimate account of the struggle for power between a mother and a daughter, which Amy was shocked to realize
So, did she write what she knew, or what she imagined?
My take on the whole “write what you know” vs. “write what you don’t know” debate in fiction is that is sets up a dichotomy between supposed “authenticity” and “pure fiction” that is, in fact, artificial.
A writer could write a piece of fiction about someone far away from the writers’ experience – perhaps in another time, or world, or perhaps just leading a completely different life with entirely different motivations than the author. Yet her very ability to put herself in another’s vantage point, to imagine the thoughts and emotions of another being in another world, depends on exposing some truth known to the author through her own world.
“Imagination is the closest thing to compassion,” Amy Tan once said. And I think this is the crux at which the line blurs between truth and fiction.
Of course we can do express what we imagine well or we can express it poorly, and it is often in the details where the authenticity of the voice can begin to unravel. That’s where the benefit of writing from one’s lived experience can come in, or the need to immerse oneself so deeply in learning about another time and place that ultimately becomes part of us. It becomes our experience.
Tennyson once wrote: “I am part of all that I have met.” We project ourselves into our experiences in order to make meaning to what would otherwise appear to be a random collection of isolated experiences. It is through thinking, reasoning, and meaning-making that the conceptual construct of a process is borne. And in turn, all that we have met becomes a part of us.